Do we really want to share so much information?


This column appeared in Arab News on Dec. 29, 2013:

By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh

The revelations this year by former CIA employee Edward Snowden that the US National Security Agency has been spying on the phone calls and e-mails of Americans, foreigners and their leaders were astounding and disturbing.

The official justification from American officials for such unprecedented large-scale snooping was not reassuring: That this was necessary to disrupt terrorist plots against the United States. Further justification that most of this data was processed in bulk format through automated computer programs looking for key words such as “Al-Qaeda” or “jihad” was not very comforting. Nor was the reassurance that the NSA over-collected so much information that it was humanly impossible to sift through all of it individually. That was supposed to make us feel better about having our privacy violated? I hardly think so.
Yet in all of the hullabaloo over whether Snowden is a patriot or a traitor for stealing thousands of top secret documents from the US government, a crucial debate has been avoided entirely: What about the rivers of personal data that private businesses collect on us every day of our lives in shops and online?

Internet expert Evgeny Morozov recently asked this question in an article he wrote for the Financial Times. “What eludes Snowden — along with most of his detractors and supporters — is that we might be living through a transformation in how capitalism works, with personal data emerging as an alternative payment regime. The benefits to consumers are already obvious; the potential costs to citizens are not,” wrote Morozov.

A few months ago I was startled to find out that my local pharmacy here in Brasilia had been keeping track of every single purchase I made there by insisting that I enroll in their discount program. Years ago I had given them my CPF number, which is a taxpayer’s number that every adult resident in Brazil must have. Without a CPF you cannot buy a SIM card for your mobile phone, or make any purchase of appliances, automobiles or plane tickets. Without giving them my CPF number I would not have gotten the significant discounts on prescription medicines that I had been getting so far. I found out when I bought two boxes of a prescription medicine for my neck. The pharmacy had only one box, but said they would order another one for me, and that I could come back the next day to get the other one. It was when the clerk turned her computer screen around to confirm my details with me that I was horrified to see a long list of medicines and the dates of when I had bought them. Did I really want them to be able to call up this list and see that I had bought antibiotics last January for a sinus infection? Or that I had bought baby formula for my maid’s baby in March? Not really.

But if we stop and think about it, companies constantly indulge in such bargaining for our information. The most used method is that of the age-old discount. Who doesn’t like saving money on a purchase? In exchange we are usually asked to give up personal information such as our birthdate, gender, home address, e-mail address, and phone number. My pharmacy is collecting purchasing information on all of its clients and in exchange gives us a discount on medicines. But how is this information stored and protected? Who has access to it? From the look of it, any employee of my pharmacy, which is part of a local chain, could punch in my CPF number and then print out a long list of all of my purchases since 2009!

This illustrates a very interesting shift in capitalism in which more than just money is needed to get full benefits out of the trading system. Businesses are not just asking us to give up personal information to get discounts, but they sometimes try to influence our behavior. Recently a Brazilian friend asked me if I wouldn’t like to attend a free concert near the National Museum here in Brasilia. I said sure, not knowing that in order to get the supposedly “free” ticket I had to register online, giving them my CPF number and home address, and then I had to take one broken electronic item that I happened to have laying around at home to specially designated collection centers in order to get my ticket. In other words, they were trying to get the concertgoers to be “green” and recycle their electronic trash instead of just throwing it out. They may have had a noble intention but for me it was too complicated, and I wasn’t desperate enough for a free ticket to jump through so many hoops!

I don’t think my pharmacy, or any business for that matter, should be allowed to demand that customers hand over their personal information in order to get a discount. That is anti-democratic and unfair. A legal loophole should exist for those of us, who like me, refuse to allow businesses collect our buying information in order for us to be able to get discounts. We want our discounts but without giving up our privacy.

— The writer is a Saudi journalist based in Brazil.

Viva generic medications!

I WAS pleasantly surprised on Thursday (28/04/2011) when I discovered at the pharmacy that my anti-cholesterol medicine Crestor is now available in a much cheaper generic form!

I had been paying around R$120 ($76.40) a month for 30 pills of 10mg Crestor, which is manufactured by Astra-Zeneca in Puerto Rico and imported into Brazil. This week I bought the generic brand of rosuvastatina calcica for only R$56.30 ($35.80) a box, a huge savings of R$63.70 ($40.50)!

Astra-Zeneca claims that its patent on Crestor is valid until at least 2016, and had succeeded in getting a preliminary judicial injunction stopping local companies from breaking the patent in order to manufacture generic versions. But the Brazilian government thought otherwise and got the injunction overturned, allowing local drug companies to manufacture generic versions of the drug starting in March. I bought generic rosuvastatina calcica made by Germed, but at least three other drug companies will soon have their own versions on the market. Astra-Zeneca said it will take further legal measures to try and protect its patent, but it seems unlikely that any Brazilian court will rule in their favor.

I understand the argument made by big drug companies that they have to be able to charge premium rates for a guaranteed number of years, by having an exclusive patent on drugs, in order to be able to finance the research and development of new drugs, which is expensive to undertake. But I also think that consumers should not be forced to pay through their noses for essential drugs that help them stay healthy just to pad the profits of these firms.

Brazil is on the right path by ending the exclusive patents on drugs that have already been on the market for at least five years. Viva generic drugs!

Gasoline hits $7.30 a gallon in Brasilia!

AS you can see from this picture to the right, residents of Brasilia woke up this morning to yet another hike in gasoline prices. According to the Correio Braziliense newspaper some gas stations are already charging from R$3.02 a liter ($7.30 a gallon) for regular gasoline, to R$3.17 a liter ($7.66 a gallon) for “aditivada” gasoline.


Just four days ago I wrote that Petrobras’ distribution arm had promised not pass on additional costs to gas station owners given that the new crop of sugar cane was being processed all across the country. Petrobras blamed rising costs of gasoline on the high price of ethanol (made from sugar cane), that by federal law it must blend into all gasoline sold in Brazil. Obviously they cannot be trusted nor believed.

The Correio said that all gasoline stations across the Distrito Federal would be raising their gasoline prices above the R$3 a liter level by next week. With nearly 40 percent of the cost of a liter of gasoline going to federal and local taxes, both the federal and local governments could do something to ease the pain of motorists at the pump. Unfortunately for us, that is highly unlikely as neither wants to see a reduction in revenue that these gas taxes help rake in. Shame on them!

Brazilians in shock at gasoline prices: $7 a gallon!

GASOLINE prices rose again last week in Brasilia to an eye-watering R$2.94 a liter, or $1.85 a liter. In US gallon terms, that’s a whopping $7.03 a gallon, something that American drivers would never accept.

Here in Brazil, the public has grown accustomed to heavy government taxing of fuels, despite a government program started in the 1970s to use alcohol as fuel for cars in an effort to reduce dependence on petroleum products. All gasoline in Brazil has alcohol added to it, in a 75% gasoline to 25% alcohol mix, and most cars built here have flex engines that can run on either gasoline or alcohol.

Brazil has long touted its self-sufficiency in oil production, importing oil only occasionally to meet spikes in demand. Indeed, its recent find of offshore oil below a four-kilometer wide layer of salt in the seabed, has been heralded as a chance for the country to become an oil exporter.

In the meantime, however, greedy sugar cane growers have been busy exporting huge amounts of Brazil’s sugar and alcohol production because they realized they could get more money for them on the international market than at home. This has pushed local sugar prices to extremely high levels, with a 5-kilo package of refined sugar selling for R$10 ($6.30) in supermarkets. This also pushed alcohol prices for cars to R$2.84 a liter at the pump, making it uneconomical to use in flex cars. Alcohol burns faster in car engines than gasoline does, so to make it worthwhile for car owners to use alcohol as a fuel its price must be less than R$2 a liter.

The administration of President Dilma Rousseff has said that it intends to reclassify alcohol as a fuel so that it can regulate it better. Alcohol is currently classified as an “agricultural” product. It also said it was thinking of taxing sugar exports at R$4 a kilo as a possible emergency measure to force sugar cane growers to export less sugar. Incredibly, Petrobras, the national Brazilian oil company, was forced to import alcohol from the United States this year to mix in with the gasoline it sells in the country. By law all gasoline has to have at least 20% alcohol in it, so fuel distributors were blaming this requirement for the escalating price of gas at the pump.

The price of gasoline in Brasilia has already been hiked three times this year, and gasoline station owners had warned that prices would reach R$3.03 a liter this week. Thankfully, the main fuel distributor in the country, which is owned by Petrobras, announced today (19/04/2011) that it was not going to pass on another increase in gasoline prices to fuel station owners because the new crop of sugar cane has begun to be processed at sugar mills around the country, easing supplies that had been stretched because of record exports and the inter-crop period.

There are two solutions to ending the sky-high prices Brazilians pay for gasoline: Either take out the alcohol that is mixed in to it, or cut the hefty federal and state taxes that are levied on gasoline. According to the Syndicate of Fuel Station Owners of the Distrito Federal, 37.75 percent of the cost of a liter of gasoline sold here goes to taxes: 24.58 percent in local taxes and 13.17 percent in federal taxes. Cutting those taxes would certainly ease the pain at the pump that consumers are feeling, but I doubt that there is any political will to forgo this revenue either on the federal or local level. As for taking the alcohol out of the gasoline, a federal law would have to be amended to do so, which means that Congress would have to agree to this, which would take time and be politically-fraught.

Brazil needs to rethink its commitment to renewable sources of energy, such as alcohol, and make it a national priority it once was. The first step is reclassifying alcohol as a strategic fuel. Then they need to discourage sugar producers from exporting so much sugar and alcohol. Certainly, the strength of the national currency, the real, has to be reigned in by lowering the interest rate, which at 11.75% a year, is sucking in huge amounts of dollars from overseas, further weakening the exchange rate with the US dollar. Higher fuel and sugar prices are already pushing the inflation rate up, and Brazil is therefore not expected to contain inflation to the rates it predicted it would at the beginning of the year.

Mercado Cobogó: Trendy design in Brasilia

HAVE you been looking for a shop in Brasilia that sells beautiful, design-progressive decorative objects, leather goods, stationary and jewelry? Then look no further than the Mercado Cobogó located in the 704/705 quadra of the Asa Norte.

The store-cum-café will be one year old in January, and is run by the thirty something couple of Mariana Dap and Ph Caovilla.

“I’m an artist and always wanted to have a space like this,” Mariana told me on Saturday when I visited the store for the first time.

Installed in a large and airy space, with exposed concrete beams and high ceilings, the store has many fun and pretty objects to tempt one. Delicate, lace-like necklaces and bracelets made of thinly-cut silicone in gold, silver, green, black and purple hues would make elegant gifts for any woman. A glass stand showcases the avant-garde silver and gold jewelry of a Brasilia-based designer, with prices in the R$200-400 ($117-235) range.

I especially liked a colorful bed throw from India, which in the single-bed size was priced at R$195 ($114), and a pair of black and white ceramic salt and pepper shakers in the form of Miró-esque women with huge breasts and butts for R$35 ($20). I also liked a white woodcarving of Saint George slaying the dragon, which was priced at R$197 ($115).

I bought a Zoot rollerball pen in navy blue resin with canary-yellow accents for R$45 ($26), a cute, pocket-size Monjojo Cahier notebook with a illustration of Little Red Riding Hood on the cover, and a 3-D bookmark with a moose on it.

The store also features a Brazilian line of feather-light necklaces and bags made from recycled fishing nets in a surprising range of colors. I especially liked the small-leather goods of the São Paulo-based Dafna Edery, who had beautifully finished wallets in red, aqua blue, green and brown leathers. I bought a small wallet for R$78 ($45), and highly recommend her goods which rival anything you would find in Europe or the US.

Once you’ve tired of shopping you can sit down at one of Cobogó’s outside tables and order an espresso and a slice of homemade chocolate cake.

In the basement of the store, Mariana showed me the communal workspace that she shares with a web designer, consultants and various other small businesses.

“We decided to try and have a communal work space that we shared with other small businesses,” Mariana told me. “But it was difficult in the beginning because some people were suspicious that the rent for such a work space was so cheap.”

For around R$450 a month ($264), one can get a small workspace in which to put a desk, chair and laptop. The rent includes free Wi-Fi Internet access, electricity, water, a bathroom upstairs, security and a discount at the Cobogó café.

There are only a few spaces left, so if you’re interested contact Mariana on tel. 3039-6333.

“We don’t have any stock, so what you see on the shelves is what we’ve got, so things do move fast here,” explained Mariana. “But we get new things every week, so it’s always worth it to pop in regularly to see what ‘s new.”

— Mercado Cobogó is located at 704/705 Norte, bloco E, lojas 51 to 56, and is open from Monday to Saturday from 9am to 7pm. Driving on W3 Norte, turn into the 704/705 quadra at the intersection with the Carrefour supermarket. Head towards the 900 block and you’ll see one of the biggest trees in Brasilia. The store is to the left of it.

Stupid marketing calls

EVERYONE has experienced one of those idiotic and highly annoying marketing calls that phone companies and other firms like to torture us with.

The latest one I received yesterday was from Oi, the operator of our two landlines. They charge us R$42 ($24) a month for each line, which is rather expensive. I told my mom that I saw an ad for a TIM fixed-line that was only R$20 a month, and which included 1,000 minutes of local calls.
Now I know that many of you will say that many people today survive with only a cellphone, which is what I did when I lived in Saudi and the UAE. But here in Brazil whenever you make a doctor’s appointment, or buy something major in a store, they always ask for a fixed-line phone number. Some doctors’ offices even refuse to call a cell number because it costs them more! So having a fixed number is something of a necessity here.
Anyway, here is how my annoying call went, which I’ve translated from Portuguese:
ME: Hello?
ANNOYING MARKETING WOMAN: Can I speak to Mrs. Joyce Abualsamh?
ME: Who is calling?
ANNOYING MARKETING WOMAN: I’m calling on behalf of Oi and would like to offer her some promotions.
ME: You can talk to me, I’m her son.
ANNOYING MARKETING WOMAN: I’m sorry, I can only talk to the owner of the line. Is she there?
ME: Yes she’s here but she lives in the house next to mine. So go ahead and tell me about your offers.
ANNOYING MARKETING WOMAN: I can’t, I can only talk to the owner of the line.
ME: But I pay this bill!
ANNOYING MARKETING WOMAN: I can only divulge this information to the owner of this line.
ME: X@!!!!!*&^%$!!!! We don’t want your offers!
Upon which I hung up. The woman’s tone of voice and accent were extremely grating, which just made the conversation even more annoying. If only she had been kinder, used her mind and told me what offers they had, I could have passed on the information to my mother. But here once again big business fails yet one more time in connecting with one of its customers, creating a negative impression instead of a positive one. Perhaps we may just switch to a TIM landline after all.

Emirates goes stingy with economy passengers

IF YOU’RE going to fly economy class on Emirates Airlines long haul anytime soon be forewarned: They’re cutting back on expenses so bring some of your own snacks and drinks.

Despite making a record profit of more than $900 million in their last year of operations, Emirates is cutting back so much in its economy class that its affecting their catering on board long flights. I experienced this a few weeks ago flying with them from Sao Paulo to Dubai and back. The flight is more than 14 hours nonstop and is usually packed. So it is obvious that Emirates is not losing money on this route, but is in fact making a good profit on it.

But one certainly would not think so by the attitude of their inflight crew. When I asked for a second glass of mineral water, both flight attendants who were doling out the drinks said: “Oh! That will be five dirhams extra, please!”
I was so shocked by their bad taste joke that I could only chuckle along with them, but they seemed rather embarrassed to have to say that.
Next, around three hours after dinner had been served I felt peckish and went to the back of the plane to get something to eat. The crew were placing sandwiches, fruit, chocolate and drinks out to allow passengers to eat at their will, as was pointed out in their inflight menu card. I asked an attendant if I could have a sandwich, and she said yes. Around 45 minutes when they were handing out sandwiches down the aisle I made the mistake of asking for another sandwich.
“I’m sorry, but you already took a sandwich, I remember,” said the same flight attendant in an accusatory tone.
When I protested that Emirates was becoming stingy, she said she would come back and give me another sandwich if there were any left over. “We have to make sure everyone gets one first before we allow anyone to have seconds,” was her weak excuse.
Sure enough, around 20 minutes later she returned to my seat and gave me a sandwich. When I later wandered to the back to get a drink, I saw that there were a good number of leftover sandwiches, fruit and chocolates.
Flying back from Dubai to Sao Paulo it was the same drill. This time I asked to speak to whoever was in charge of the cabin crew. Several hours later a flight attendant came to me and asked if they could use my name and seat number on a form they were filing about my complaint.
“I’m sorry sir, but we need you passengers to complain to the airline or they won’t change their policy,” said the clearly apologetic and embarrassed flight attendant.
Three hours into my more than 14-hour flight back to Sao Paulo I went to the back of the plane to get a soft drink. The flight attendant served it to me lukewarm without any ice.
“I’m sorry we’ve already run out of ice,” he told me. “We’ll try to get some from the front for our next service.”
So, it seems its okay to let economy passengers go without ice while not even halfway into the flight, and food must be rationed too. Of course that would never happen to business and first class passengers.
Maybe I will fly on Qatar Airways next time I have to go to Saudi Arabia. It’s just a thought.
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